At this point, it’s pretty clear that Russia helped elect Donald Trump. While Congress and the FBI continue to investigate Kremlin interference with the election, let’s take a moment to step back. If you care about fake news from Russia and the strategic leaking that sank Hillary Clinton’s campaign, you should also care about Russia’s domestic surveillance and censorship as well as its efforts to kill the global free and open internet.
Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has established a system that uses the power of the internet to carefully control the expression of dissent in a way that gives the impression of limited freedom of expression, without actually allowing dissent to gain traction—what Rebecca MacKinnon has called networked authoritarianism. The Kremlin uses media censorship, online surveillance (and the ensuing chilling effects), selective extralegal intimidation, and persistent cultural norms from the country’s Soviet heritage to ensure favorable media coverage, intimidate the opposition, limit discussion of forbidden topics, and otherwise control domestic information flows.
Along with China, which has its own version of networked authoritarianism, Russia has been exporting this ideology through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This “authoritarians’ club” was formed in 2001 to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism—a dog whistle for political dissidence, self-governance, and departure from official orthodoxy. The SCO serves as a learning forum for governments to share advice on ruling with an iron fist in the 21st century, sort of like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe but with dramatically different values.
Russian political culture sees information as a threat—a weapon that you can use or that can be used against you, and that should be controlled at all costs. The Kremlin doesn’t see surveillance, domestic media policy, cybersecurity, and internet governance as separate issues. Rather, they are deeply connected to misinformation campaigns abroad, and are used strategically to achieve geopolitical goals.
Authoritarians such as Putin set up strategic infrastructures—trolls, bots, hackers, and propagandists—to control the message internally and intervene in global media systems. Official media organs such as RT and Sputnik are key parts of that infrastructure, reporting just enough accurate news to lull audiences into believing blatant propaganda—like “the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine in 2014 was a false flag operation, and the plane was full of already dead bodies,” or “Hillary Clinton is a corrupt liar who runs a child prostitution ring out of a pizza parlor in Northwest D.C.” Automated Twitter accounts are also used to harass users, signal-boost predetermined content, hijack hashtags, and otherwise manipulate the overall discourse in the Twittersphere. One study suggests that during the election, about one-third of pro-Trump tweets and one-fourth of pro-Clinton tweets came from bots.
Online surveillance in what is now the Russian Federation is basically as old as the internet. The System of Operative-Investigative Measures, or SORM, was first implemented in 1995, requiring telecommunications operators to install hardware provided by the FSB (the KGB’s successor agency) to monitor users’ communications metadata and content—including phone calls, email traffic, and web browsing activity, despite the low internet penetration rate at the time. In 2012 SORM was expanded to include social media platforms, though very little is known about how this works in practice. The assumption among Russian digital rights activists is that any information shared on Russian social networks such as Vkontakte or Odnoklassniki is collected by the intelligence services. As of fall 2016, all internet service providers are required to install new hardware with deep packet inspection capabilities, essentially giving the authorities real-time access to all information that goes across the Russian internet. Data retention and data localization laws bring even more information into SORM’s net, as internet companies are required to keep all communication records (metadata as well as content) for extended periods of time and to store all information about Russian citizens on servers physically located within the country’s borders. The goal: making online privacy obsolete.
Moscow has also been working through internet governance forums to build as many control points as possible into the global architecture of the internet. Every year since 1998, Russia has proposed a U.N. resolution to prohibit “information aggression,” or the use of ideas or ideology to undermine the stability of governments. (The resolution has failed every year.) During the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005, and at every opportunity ever since, it has backed efforts to give the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. body where each government has an equal vote, control over critical internet infrastructure. Since more governments oppose the free and open internet than support it, such a system is guaranteed to result in more fragmentation and censorship. Instead, critical internet infrastructure is governed by the multistakeholder Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The California nonprofit’s contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce expired in 2016, and ICANN is now directly accountable to the global community of internet users. Efforts to give governments even more control of the internet have been thwarted so far, but we know Donald Trump is no friend of a free press or open internet. The internet freedom coalition may not hold without U.S. leadership. That’s Putin’s hope, anyway.
There’s a broad trans-Atlantic agreement that we need to take the threat of information warfare seriously, and various actors (including the European Commission, Facebook, and Google) are launching stopgap measures in advance of the upcoming French and German elections. But no coherent strategy has emerged yet. Policymakers need to understand the totality of Russian information policy to successfully defend against it.
Just as countries such as Russia that practice networked authoritarianism take a holistic approach to controlling information and communication, we need to similarly adopt a coherent framework across domestic media regulation, international communication policy, and internet governance—one that embraces privacy, free expression, and net neutrality.